When President Bill Clinton was winning two elections and presiding over economic boom times, his “Slick Willie” nickname highlighted a penchant for wanting to play all sides to stay on top. He was praised for feeling the pain of Americans and rode into a post presidency on a wave of high approval ratings, but the flaws are evident in his latest forays into his wife’s unexpectedly tough presidential primary campaign.
Though Bill Clinton’s telling off protesters in Philadelphia holding signs and interrupting his speech to remind him of the consequences of his 1994 crime bill may actually help his wife win some voters who believe the demonstrators deserve what he dished out, the image of the red-faced former president wagging a finger and dressing down young activists is not a good look. And his “I almost want to apologize” backtracking was condescending and too cute by half .
Hillary Clinton has spoken against key parts of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, among other provisions, toughened penalties for nonviolent drug offenders and funded the building of new prisons. Her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, voted for it, as well, though he avoided the language of Hillary Clinton, who in 1996 called young offenders “super predators,” words she now says she should not have used and would not use again. But though he has said the law did go too far, there lives the former president on video, doubling down on that characterization in his contentious interaction with activists.
The issue is complicated; 2016 isn’t 1994. But while it’s true that many black legislators supported the crime bill back then, others, such as Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who now supports Clinton’s presidential bid, voted against it.
When confronted, it’s difficult for Bill Clinton to back down or admit ambiguity, especially when it comes to his own legacy. And that doesn’t really help his wife, especially with younger African-American voters. She is running for the future and not the past. Barack Obama won because of minority and young voters, and African-American women who registered new voters and cast ballots at a high percentage. It’s not that many will likely vote for the Republican nominee – but will their enthusiasm be dampened by a Bill Clinton with one foot in the 1990s and the other in his mouth.
It was a reminder of the 2008, out-of-touch Bill Clinton and his sweep through South Carolina on his wife’s behalf, telling voters how great his own presidency was and belittling then-Sen. Barack Obama, another primary rival the Clintons underestimated. His praise of his wife too often sounded defensive and petty, and the heavily African-American Democratic primary constituency was not amused. After the fact, when the crushing South Carolina results came in, Hillary Clinton probably regretted not sending Bill off on a global mission early on.
Many of the pundits who continue to praise his power as campaign surrogate also seem to be operating in a time warp. The indestructible appeal of a bad boy has curdled. The “big dog” nickname has worn thin, especially when it’s this year’s Republican contest that has too often reverted to masculine boasting and power plays. Maybe that’s why few scoffed when Hillary Clinton said this year that America needs “more love and kindness.” At the very least, it represented a contrast.
Is this what candidate Clinton is thinking as Bill once again grabs the headlines? As she tries to close the deal against Sanders in 2016, Hillary Clinton may be getting a flashback and buying a one-way plane ticket for the unpredictable spouse who will always go his own way.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis is a contributor to NPR and NBCBLK, who has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, Politics Daily and as a contributor to The Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her at @mcurtisnc3. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.